- Elginism - http://www.elginism.com -

Controversies over restitution claims

In recent weeks, there have been a number of controversial auctions [1] involving looted artefacts. The attention that these auctions have attracted highlights how strongly many people feel about cultural property cases.

Digital Chosun ilbo (Korea) [2]

Updated Mar.30,2009 12:59 KST
Efforts for the Return of Our Heritage Must Continue

Gandhi’s personal effects went up for sale at auction in New York on Mar. 6 and were bought by an Indian billionaire. Among his belongings were also a pocket watch, his sandals, and a bowl. Gandhi had presented the iconic round spectacles to a British colonel during the 1930s, telling him that they had given him the vision to free India. The leather sandals were given to a British officer before a roundtable meeting on Indian independence in 1931 because the officer took photographs of Gandhi.

News that these memorabilia were being auctioned off sparked outrage among India’s 1.1 billion people. The government and Gandhi’s descendents expressed their objections, saying it was an insult to Gandhi’s memory. The American seller responded he would cancel the auction if the Indian government sharply increased its spending on the poor by cutting its defense budget in half.

After winning the bid of US$1.8 million, Vijay Mallya, the CEO of a conglomerate whose firms include aerospace, pharmaceutical, and fertilizer companies, announced his plan to donate the whole lot to the Indian government. The Indian people welcomed the announcement warmly. The Guardian newspaper reported that if things happened as promised, visitors to the National Gandhi Museum in Delhi would be able to see the possessions and buy replicas at the gift shop.

Previous to this event, a Chinese art collector, Cai Mingchao, announced in Beijing on Mar. 2 that he had submitted the winning bid for two sculptures being sold at auction in France but was not paying the money. The news probably brought much relief to China’s 1.3 billion people. Mr. Cai had submitted the winning bid of 3,149 thousand euros at the auction, which was held by Christie’s, on Feb. 25 for sculptures of the heads of a rat and a rabbit, which had been looted by French soldiers from the Yuan Ming Yuan in 1860. He said he could not let the items go to a foreign country, so he had bid to win and by not paying he was disrupting the sale.

Many people around the world will understand these incidents. There are many treasures in the museums of New York, London, and Paris that were taken forcefully from around the world. Efforts by the plundered nations to recover them continue. Peru recently brought a legal suit against Yale University to recover tens of thousands of Incan artifacts plundered from Machu Picchu during the 1910s. Greece has been battling the U.K. for decades to take back the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum. Greece and Ethiopia against Italy, Italy against France, Iraq against Syria: these are some of the countries that have fought for their legacies to be returned.

As of October 2007, Korea had 76,134 relics verified to have been taken by foreign nations, including France and Japan. Of 296 Oegyujanggak library books plundered by the French in 1866, only one has been returned. France acted as if it would return the books when it was trying to sell Korea its TGV high-speed trains in the 1990s. But even though the contract is signed, 296 books have yet to be returned. No matter how tedious the process, the efforts for the return of our legacy should continue. National treasures are an inheritance in which the spirit of the nation lives and should not be relinquished.

By Lee Hang-su, the Chosun Ilbo’s correspondent in Hong Kong